Why Shadow of the Colossus is Overrated
Warning: This opinion piece contains detailed narrative spoilers but few mechanical spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus, ICO, Prince of Persia (2008) and God of War.
To celebrate the release of The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, I thought I would proclaim this: Shadow of the Colossus is overrated.
Before I detail my blasphemous opinion, let me briefly overview the parts that likely led to various people declaring SotC a “masterpiece”. The aesthetics and landscapes wonderfully establish an atmosphere and setting of bleakness, of a world locked away and left to be slowly consumed by the elements. Ruins imply death and decay and what life there is treats you as if you were a pariah. The environment is almost hostile in its expansiveness, as if it’s passive-aggressively suggesting that you too will get lost and be engulfed like everything else in this world. Fortunately, exploration turns out to be rewarding nonetheless due to the world feeling mysterious and laced with history. The minimalistic story is balanced in such a way that it implies a lot but still gives you enough information to let your imagination fill in the blanks. And, excluding two bosses that kind of phone it in, the combat doesn’t waste your time with generic enemies. Instead, it consists entirely of truly large-scale encounters that beautifully blend boss battles with platforming and action-adventure in ways that many other games do not. Judged solely on these merits, I can understand why people who recognize and appreciate this atypical execution of typical game features love the game so much.
But those are just the overarching concepts, the ideas meant to thread together a specific authorial vision and player experience. If any one element of the whole fails in execution, then the entire experience falls apart.
SotC‘s story is what caused the experience to fall apart for me. For those not in the know, it’s a deconstruction of a prototypical “Damsel in Distress” plot: You know almost nothing about Mono, the girl you set out to save, yet Wander (the protagonist) is determined to “go to the ends of the Earth” to save her regardless of the consequences. The subversion to the archetypal heroic antics of such a plot sets in when it becomes clear that Wander’s motivation, rather than leading to the typical string of successes where the protagonist ultimately saves the day and his love interest by blowing up the big bad’s doom fortress, is actually obsessive to the point where it facilitates his own self-destruction. (And, if Wander is indeed in love with Mono, then then combing it with the lack of backstory can also make Shadow of the Colossus a deconstruction of the Dulcinea effect.) SotC set out to tell a touching story of a tragic hero on a desperate and misguided quest to save the one he loves, but I think it failed. Conceptually, its themes are fine and easy to sympathize with, but I think the execution of those concepts failed because Wander’s story was not presented in a way that made me care. (More on that in a bit.)
Unsympathetic characters can work in literature or film because the distance you have between the character and yourself allows you to easily root both for and against them. This is not true for games. Whether you’re a being so pure that flowers sprout where you step and entire populaces pray for your success or an embodiment rage and vengeance that is set on killing an entire pissed off pantheon, there is at least one constant for writing a good video game protagonist: The player must either sympathize with the character’s actions, or they must pity them.
The element of interactivity (and specifically player agency) is what establishes this difference from other media. And I think it was exactly this facet of the video game medium that clashed with the story the developers wanted to tell. Why? Because Shadow of the Colossus is a game about taking orders. Orders from Wander about what he wants to accomplish. Orders from Dormin about want it wants in order to facilitate what Wander wants. And, most damningly, orders from the developer about how you should play their game.
I’d equate my experience playing SotC with performing a variant of the Milgram experiment where I was “the teacher”, Wander was “the learner”, and developer Team ICO (by way of the game) was “the experimenter”. After “administering a few shocks” by downing the first couple of Colossi, I was worried about the toll it was taking on Wander. I didn’t have access to Wander’s thoughts, whatever they might be, so I had no idea what the emotional damage was. However, the malicious threads of energy emanating from defeated Colossi did cause me to pause to consider Wander’s physical health. “Should I go on? Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all,” I thought. “Please continue,” the game responded.
After a couple more Colossi, it was evident that an additional ominous and shadowy figure appeared every single time Wander defeated another boss. “Who are those people anyway? The spirits of the Colossi? And should I be worried about them? They don’t exactly look happy to see Wander,” I wondered aloud. “The experiment requires that you continue,” the game responded.
After yet another batch of Colossi, the physical toll of it all on Wander became much clearer; those threads of energy didn’t just seem malicious, they actually were malicious. Slowly but surely, they were corrupting Wander’s body and making it doubtful that he’d survive whatever was happening to him. The game saw my towering doubts and told me: “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
And continue I did. I thought there might be some kind of emotional or educational pay-off to what I was enduring. After the last Colossus was slain, after Dormin rose and fell, and after Wander got his wish but couldn’t really go on to enjoy it, I finally realized something. The game didn’t explicitly tell me this, and I was free to quit any time I wished, but only by the end of the game did I truly grasp the undercurrent to the entire story: “You have no other choice, you must go on.”
In SotC, I can play as a non-idiot to the best of my abilities, but I can never cure Wander of his idiotic short-sightedness. I did not want to be submissive to this game’s demands, but because Team ICO provided no flexibility in their story, it caused constant cognitive dissonance and frustration whenever I perceived idiotic player character behavior that was beyond my control. SotC is not the only game where this happens, but it’s one of the most damnable because, as aforementioned, the story and the gameplay are tightly intertwined, which makes Wander’s idiocy far more poisonous here than in other games.
You might be thinking: “By golly, if you want choice and lots of player agency, just go play some highly customizable RPG!” A valid suggestion, but I think player agency can still exist in sufficient quantities in story-driven and highly linear games like Shadow of the Colossus. I’ll go into this more in a follow-up piece, but for now I’d like to bring up the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. PoP, while more non-linear than SotC, is still effectively a linear story but just broken up into little homogenous pieces. Whatever choices you make throughout are inconsequential since, like a jigsaw puzzle, you’ll always piece together roughly the same result in the end regardless of what your actual progression to that end was. However, in the very last moments of the game, The Prince (your player character) is provided with a real and important choice. He can acquiesce to Elika’s wishes, or he can defy them. Defiance is backed up by a cutscene, an Achievement / Trophy, and an Epilogue DLC, clearly making it the canonical option. However, I much prefer the other choice. Why? Because it lets The Prince actually complete a character arc. For the entire game he’s this smart-mouthed, somewhat egotistical and self-serving jerk, but if he lets Elika get her wish, he makes this huge decision that’s counter to his initial behavior and that represents that he is now willing to defer judgment to others. The canonical choice doesn’t have any of this and just corroborates that The Prince is selfish, doesn’t care about others’ views, and didn’t learn a damn thing. Shadow of the Colossus is the same way, except there isn’t any choice whatsoever. Instead, you’re just railroaded into never escaping Wander’s self-destructive tragedy. It doesn’t matter whether the choice I wanted to make is canonical, but it does matter that I never had a choice to begin with. (Also, yes, I realize the anachronism in referencing PoP as it came out some years after SotC. This didn’t preclude Team ICO of thinking of something similar or better though.)
What really got me steamed up though, is that SotC is wont to chastise the player for making “bad choices” that lead to self-destruction despite the game’s minimalism working against itself here. It criticizes us for unleashing an evil being for the sake of personal gain without making it clear why Dormin is evil or why it deserved to be banished. For all we know, Emon et al may be puritanical zealots who trapped Dormin due to disapproving of its power to upset what they believed was the “natural order” of things. Who’s to say that the deal between Dormin and Wander isn’t just quid pro quo between two oppressed entities rather than the implied Faustian pact with the devil? The vagueness of the story makes this alternative interpretation easy to conclude, deftly undermining the melancholic and tragic tone of the game and making the authorial voice seem patronizing.
Regardless of which is the “correct” interpretation, when your actions are highly limited and carefully plotted in advance, how can you feel guilty for “evil” behavior when you have no say in the matter (other than turning off the console in disgust)? One can’t possibly expect the player to be responsible for events when they have no agency. And since the chastising via deconstruction is part of the game’s raison d’être, hopefully you can understand why I was so underwhelmed.
I think it’s also worth mentioning Kratos as he was characterized in God of War I. He isn’t a hero (by any stretch of the imagination), but he’s still manages to be a very tragic and pitiable figure. And I think he’s a much better character than Wander. First off, I appreciated that it was clear that Kratos was rude, crude, lewd from the get-go. God of War sets the tone immediately and doesn’t do any piddling about with the nature of the player character like what happened with Wander in SotC. To be fair, deconstruction without parody or mountains of hyperbole practically demands subversion of expectation, but I see that as an argument against how the characterization of Wander was dealt with in SotC. Secondly, Kratos’ actions partially contribute the failure of his own goals, which heightens the tragedy of his situation and makes him pitiable despite being detestable for his wanton behavior. By contrast, though the end result was probably not what he anticipated, Wander ultimately succeeds in his goal of rescuing Mono, and the comparatively fewer hardships he goes through made it seem as if Team ICO wanted us to root for Wander despite vilifying him and the player’s “complicity” in his story. Thirdly, the tragedy of Kratos culminates when he attempts suicide in an effort to escape the hopeless life that he and the Gods have conspired to write. As much as I may abhor Kratos’ violence and machismo, I can’t be help but feel genuinely sad when he and I both reflect upon what a trainwreck he is. I’m always most moved when media takes a seemingly unlikeable character and uses context to turn them into something that the audience can sympathize with, even if for but a moment. Shadow of the Colossus has none of this since Wander starts and ends a flat character, never fazed by his physical corruption, never pausing to reflect on the ruination he creates, and certainly never wavering from his idealized and self-justified goal. To me, Wander is a poster boy for the claim that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
Mono isn’t much better, as she serves as little more than literal dead weight. People who liked the companion cube of the Portal series or the generic doomed hometowns / family members / whatever lazily tacked on in order to “characterize” protagonists of various other games may like Mono, but I get disgruntled whenever any given game declares that a player character adores something without giving much (if any) reason for the player behind that character to be sympathetic to these sentiments.
Whether Wander is trying to save his lover, his sister, or a VIP he failed to protect during guard duty doesn’t matter. How Mono died and why she is cursed doesn’t matter. How Wander acquired his sword, his bow, and his horse doesn’t really matter. What does matter is why I should care about the portion of the story that I get to experience once I pick up the controller and start playing the game. I fully understand what the characters’ motivations are and what they want to get out of the story, but what do I, the player, get out of the story?
I find this particularly problematic because, for stuff like various games in the Mario series (or, if you want something more accurate but also more obscure, then think of the Viewtiful Joe series), it’s typically easy to separate the gameplay and the story and enjoy one aspect if you’re not fond of the other. Though Mario’s usual goal of saving Princess Peach is effectively the same as Wander’s goal of saving Mono, Mario’s goal is not inextricably intertwined with the gameplay his series features. Mega Man and Kirby and Samus Aran can all perform the actions of running, jumping and shooting projectiles without any connection to the stories and worlds of the Mario universe. But killing the colossi in SotC can not be separated from the story; there are no optional encounters. This is why my distaste for some parts of the narrative cripples any enjoyment I might try to extract from the game. Disliking the story changes everything; it causes the expansive environments to feel empty, the collectibles to feel even more pointless, and the atmosphere to shift from bleak and hauntingly beautiful to dreary and utterly depressing. Since the experience is contingent on perceiving all aspects of the game as working in harmony, Shadow of the Colossus creates, moreso than many other games, a polarizing “love it or hate it” divide.
You may think that I’m frustrated because I’m railing against a norm and hoping for a higher standard for game stories. This is true, but a large chunk of my frustration comes from recognizing that developer Team ICO already solved this problem with a previous game of theirs and bewilderingly did not carry this solution forward to SotC. That previous game, known as ICO, endeavored to examine the much-loathed escort mission and turn it in something worthwhile and integral to an experience instead of its all-too-common application as filler for a game focused on something entirely different. And, to their credit, Team ICO did a pretty good job. Rather than hitting the pitfall of having a nigh-invulnerable badass or an insufferable burden for half (or the entirety) of the two-person team, both Ico and Yorda have notable strengths and weaknesses. (Yorda’s strengths are generally more artificial, and I’d add more cynical from a design perspective as well, than Ico’s for gameplay purposes, but that’s not relevant for the point I’m trying to put forth here.) Alone and divided, Ico and Yorda would be nearly helpless, but with their powers combined, they have a significantly improved chance of surviving and escaping their fates. Beyond that though, I loved the burgeoning sense of the companionship between Ico and Yorda as well as the various things included to humanize them. Dragging Yorda around could indeed be burdensome, but she was still helpful and autonomous occasionally and it was evident that any instances of resistance were borne out of strong feelings of trepidation. Ico was great too; he’s barely able to help himself, yet he leaps to the rescue and valiantly defends Yorda for as long as he can. The story of Ico and Yorda and the relationship that formed over the course of the game was heartwarming for its portrayal of childlike compassion and innocence. The story of SotC initially seems like it will cover similar themes, but it takes a much more cynical approach that ultimately twists those themes into stubbornness and horrible delusion for everyone involved.
I’m not saying that Team ICO should’ve done another game-spanning escort mission or something like what was done with The Prince and Elika in Prince of Persia, but I am saying that there is a huge disparity between how much Wander cares about Mono and how much the player cares about her. This is a core of the story and, as I’ve already mentioned regarding how intertwined everything is, my distaste for this greatly sours my opinion of SotC.
Interestingly, a bit of that ICO sense of companionship can still be found in the relationship between Wander and his horse Agro. She is absolutely vital for traversing the huge surroundings and dealing with some of the bosses, and when combined with her steadfast loyalty, she becomes a very endearing character in her own right. Wander even has the ability to pet Agro for no other reason than to express gratitude. In fact, I found Agro so endearing that, when she falls with a collapsing bridge and (temporarily) seems dead, I genuinely felt mournful (a sentiment that is not evoked often from video games). It also (again, temporarily) cemented my hate for the character of Wander since it appeared as if his obsessive quest killed his one undoubtedly faithful and lovable companion in order to save a girl I didn’t care one iota about.
I’m also of the opinion that deconstruction by itself is not always sufficient. Let me use an analogy. Imagine you are in a fairly comfortable house. This house has some flaws and imperfections, but its structure fits the norm of the houses that surround yours and that you are familiar with. One fateful day, a man with a wrecking ball comes to demolish your house. As he begins to create gaping holes in your walls, you demand to know what he’s doing. The deconstructor replies by saying that he wants to make you aware that your house is made out of rubbish and that you should feel bad for blissfully ignoring this blatantly obvious fact. If he’s persuasive, you’ll listen until the end. Once the house is in shambles, he sits with a self-satisfied look on his face, enjoying his handiwork for a moment. Then, he begins to drive off. “Wait!” you exclaim. “Where are you going?” “I’m done,” he responds. “What about my house?” you ask incredulously. “You did a great job explaining what was wrong with it, but I assumed you were going to tell me how to build a better house after you were done tearing down my old one.” Upon hearing this, the deconstructor stares blankly at you. You glare at him expectantly, but he can only muster “No, sorry, I just deconstruct.”
Deconstruction without reconstruction is the equivalent of cognitive blue-balling. If you were left with aporia (as the Milgram experiment analogy might suggest), then perhaps the game would have taught you something. But how can you learn from your mistakes if Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t give you the choice to repent or explore alternatives? When choice is irrelevant, the weight of the moral implications of your actions is nonexistent. You can legitimately claim you were just mechanically following orders.
If the lack of reconstruction won’t advise us in design, can any other lessons can be learned from this game? Is the lesson that love can become obsessive and dangerous? We already know that from stalkers and sociopathic relationships. Is the lesson that action without introspection can lead to self-destruction? Who hasn’t learned that yet? Is it that someone who is better equipped and more organized than you will eventually ruin your plans? Well, that one’s a real keeper.
There are other things I could complain about, like the collectible sidequests and the Time Attack mode diluting the story in an effort to make SotC more “game-like” than ICO, but the things I’ve detailed above are much more significant. They are the big issues that eclipse the smaller positive and negative aspects of the game. The bottom line is, unlike many games, Shadow of the Colossus is not a story in which I and the developer worked together to craft a desired experience. Rather, I felt it was a story imposed, a story contrived in such a way that the developer gets to deliver a specific message regardless of whether the player wants to hear it and whether it even applies. SotC just beats you with “the point” and continues to do so long after it is necessary. Players complicit in the developer’s desires probably think SotC is great for its single-minded exploration of particular concepts, but I wasn’t convinced that I had any role or, more importantly, responsibility in the tale. Wander’s struggles were not my own, and thus his suffering and success were not my own. It’s a game worth playing up until you realize what Wander’s quest ultimately entails, but thereafter the game has nothing to offer you beyond detailing Wander’s slow death spiral and showcasing the hollow spectacle of big boss battles.
If you’re satisfied with that, then more power to you, but I firmly believe Shadow of the Colossus does not deserve its God-King status among art games. If you have yet to take the plunge and make up your own mind, consider this a stern warning that it may not turn out all it’s cracked up to be.